THE DVD SHELF: Candide, Long Day's Journey and James (Dean) & Julie (Harris)

The DVD Shelf   THE DVD SHELF: Candide, Long Day's Journey and James (Dean) & Julie (Harris)
 
The recent concert version of Candide, the 1986 Jack Lemmon production of Long Day's Journey into Night, the Complete James Dean Collection and Kazan's A Face in the Crowd.

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It sometimes seems that we are bombarded with Candides. For a show that was a disappointing commercial and artistic failure in its original incarnation, Leonard Bernstein's comic operetta appears to be always with us. This is not the case, in actuality. Candide has lain dormant for long stretches of the last 50 years; many theatregoers, outside the major population centers, have never been within viewing distance. For them, there have been three televised Candides, each of a considerably different nature.

The 1986 City Opera production features the much-revised Hal Prince-Hugh Wheeler version. The 1989 tape, also known as Bernstein Conducts Candide, features the composer on the podium, overseeing his final version of the score. (Both appear to currently be out of circulation.) The 2005 concert version of Candide [Image Entertainment] is yet another variation of the piece.  This performance — featuring the New York Philharmonic, recorded at Avery Fisher Hall and broadcast on PBS — mixed Broadway icons with opera singers. Not the best of all possible Candides, I think it safe to say. Even so, here it is, the first Candide to make it to DVD.

As to whether this is a Candide for you, three little words — Chenoweth and Lupone — will no doubt give all the guidance you need. The ladies are supported by Paul Groves, Sir Thomas Allen, Jeff Blumenkrantz and Janine LaManna. Lonny Price directed, with the orchestra under the direction of Bernstein specialist Marin Alsop.

*** Back in 1986, when he was still a ticket-selling star to be reckoned with, the celebrated Jack Lemmon decided to return to Broadway in a serious acting role. He wasn't an obvious choice for the patriarch in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night [Image Entertainment], but his presence was enough to turn what might have been a chancy proposition into a hot-ticket limited engagement. The role was a stretch, all right. Lemmon was far more than adequate, although James Tyrone demands something better than that. (At that point in his career, one expected Lemmon to excel at whatever he did.)

The estimable Jonathan Miller directed, with the star supported by the little known Bethel Leslie and two up-and-coming young actors names Peter Gallagher (as Edmond) and Kevin Spacey (as Jamie). Spacey was arresting in the role, as one might imagine; this was his first major Broadway appearance other than a little-noticed 1982 turn as a troubled-and-neurotic Oswald opposite Liv Ullman in Ibsen's Ghosts. As it happened, everybody but Spacey received Tony nominations; they all lost, with the inarguably superior Lincoln Center Theater revival of The House of Blue Leaves taking three of the four awards. The Lemmon Long Day's Journey was duly taped for television broadcast, and has now been released on DVD. Again, this is not the finest version of the property you are likely to see; but you've got Spacey and Gallagher, along with the always interesting Lemmon.

Midwestern youth arrives in LA. Acting teacher says, "You ought to be on Broadway." Twenty-year-old newcomer heads east, where he is welcomed into the Actors Studio. Working as a busboy to pay the bills, he finally lands a small part in a five-performance Broadway flop. A second role — playing a slimy, amoral, blackmailing Moroccan houseboy — in another short-lived drama earns him a screen test, which immediately lands him the leading role in a major motion picture. He makes a second film before the first opens, and then a third. But a month before the second is released, he is killed in a car crash at the age of 24 — transforming him into an iconic figure of the twentieth century.

James Dean's professional career — from the opening of his first play (December 1952) to his death (September 1955) — lasted less than three years. (What have you done in the last three years?) Dean's persona, or at least his screen persona, clearly resonated with the generation just coming of age. The three characters he played were young rebels, a fact no doubt cemented by the fact that this young and vibrant performer was already dead when his last two films opened.

The occasion for this discussion is the first-time-on-DVD release of East of Eden, as part of The Complete James Dean Collection from Warner Home Entertainment.  This three-film, six-disc set also includes Rebel without a Cause and Giant, giving us screen tests, documentaries, and a fairly comprehensive view of Dean's year in Hollywood.

Each of the films is of more than incidental interest, certainly, but East of Eden has special relevance to theatre fans. Here is Broadway's Elia Kazan, just after Tea and Sympathy (and the film On the Waterfront), shortly before turning to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  Here is Julie Harris, not the revered character actress we've seen over the last 30 years but the remarkably versatile performer who stunned audiences in the early 1950s with back-to-back performances as the young Frankie Addams (of A Member of the Wedding) and the cabaret-girl Sally Bowles (of I Am a Camera).Harris was already a bonafide Broadway star when East of Eden was released in 1955; the record books tell us that the famously ageless actress up there, rather amazingly, was 29.  Also making her film debut is another respected stage actress of the fifties, Jo Van Fleet. Van Fleet was the only one of the Eden folk to pick up an Oscar; Dean — receiving the first posthumous acting nomination in Oscar history — lost to Ernest Borgnine, for Marty.

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Warner Home Entertainment has brought us another Elia Kazan treat, the stunning 1957 drama A Face in the Crowd. This is a fascinating film, marked by arresting performances from Andy Griffith and Patricia Neal.  Griffith, who was coming off his Tony-nominated performance in No Time for Sergeants, turns in a powerful and canny acting performance that might well surprise people who know him as a folksy TV star. Kazan also gives us early screen performances from Anthony Franciosa, Walter Matthau and Lee Remick. A Face in the Crowd, directed by Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, makes for riveting viewing. —Steven Suskin, author of "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork" [Chronicle Books], the "Broadway Yearbook" series, "Show Tunes" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.

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